K-State grad takes initiative when tragedy strikes in Hesston, Kansas


Joe Swain, 2014 K-State graduate in public relations, was one of the many people affected by the mass shootings on Feb. 25 at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas. At the time of the shooting, Swain said he was part of a team gathering parts for the business, but before the incident he had already been asking questions about crisis management.

Swain said he was first notified of the shootings at around 5 p.m. that day, but prior to that, he said the day had already taken a horrible turn.

“We were already having some part problems, and I remember driving down one of the main aisles there at Excel in Plant 1, and I looked out at one of the windows towards the courtyard and the sunlight was just right with the right cloud cover,” Swain said. “It kind of gave a very eerie feeling almost like evil was settling in that day, but it didn’t register.”

Swain said within 30 minutes of the shooting, he was already stepping up to speak with the media regarding the incident. At that time, they could not find the company’s spokesperson, so Swain took on the responsibility himself.

“I knew that we had to get a message out,” Swain said. “I had to let people know, whether they were employees or the world, that we’re going to come back from this and we’re going to be stronger than ever.”

Swain said he had suddenly found himself in a public relations position that he was not originally hired for. He said he was speaking with the media and working on improving Excel’s crisis management plan and utilizing the skills he was taught here at K-State.

“We’re going to get through this just fine,” Swain said. “That was not a message Excel had made, that was just something I did on the fly there. It needed to be said and it was said.”

A few days after the incident, Swain said he emailed Deb Skidmore, instructor in public relations, whom he said he had always thought of as a mentor, to get advice on the situation.

“Taking classes with Deb Skidmore was one of the best choices I could’ve made,” Swain said. “She was very knowledgeable. In the email I sent her a couple of days after the event, I said ‘I forgot half of the stuff you told me.’ You’re never going to be fully prepared for something like that.”

Skidmore said they had been in touch a bit after Swain graduated in 2014, but she was unaware that he was working for Excel Industries.

“I was very proud of him,” Skidmore said. “He was not hired as a public relations person for their company, but he stepped forward because he had the skills that we had taught him here, and he volunteered to put together a crisis management plan.”

Swain said he had been suggesting the need for a detailed crisis management plan in advance of the shooting and had been working with a team within the company to revamp their policies at the time of the incident.

Swain said his experience with crisis management began in Skidmore’s public relations campaigns class when she required them to create a mock crisis plan for the Tuttle Creek Dam breaking. Skidmore said she recalls Swain’s enthusiasm for the project at the time, and she said he went above and beyond what was required.

Skidmore said this project led Swain to express his interest in working with crisis management, so she helped him get an internship at Dole Hall. Swain said he credits both Skidmore’s campaigns class and the internship in helping him work on the crisis plan with Excel.

Skidmore said she invited Swain to come and speak to her classes on Wednesday to share his experience regarding the shooting incident.

“One of the comments he made in the email that he wrote to me, was ‘So many of the assignments you used to give us, I used to think to myself, we’re never going to use this and then all of a sudden I was using it,’” Skidmore said. “And I replied ‘Will you come and tell the students that?’”

Swain said his main goal when speaking to the students was not only to share his story, but also to encourage them to apply the skills they are learning and be prepared for the unthinkable.

“Statistically speaking, you’re not supposed to a have a workplace shooting; it’s a one-tenth of a percent chance of happening, and it happened,” Swain said, “So the one thing I’ve been telling (the students) is no amount of training, no amount of classes, nothing is going to prepare you for any type of incident. You just have to go do it. If it happens, you have to be prepared.”

Skidmore said she hopes her students could take away from what Swain shared with them in her classes Wednesday.

“This is real life stuff, probably more real than anybody wanted it to be,” Skidmore said. “So I’m hoping the fact that it was real life and the fact that it was a K-State student that they could relate to, somebody that just graduated a few years ahead of them is doing this kind of work.”

Ashley Kopko, senior in social sciences, said she learned the need for a crisis plan within most companies and that your work family is just as important as your home family.

“Take initiative in making a crisis plan for your company if it isn’t extensive because crisis and tragic situations like they had at Excel are rarely imaginable and aren’t planned for,” Kopko said. “Plan as much as you possibly can, be honest, take initiative and keep pushing through.”

This kind of sentiment is exactly what Swain said he wanted students to take away from his remarks, in addition to raising awareness for crisis management across the nation.

“Find a class to do (to learn about crisis plans), find an internship, go find a business,” Swain said. “Somebody needs a crisis plan.”